Losing three consecutive fights isn't easy. Failing to find your rhythm again after a successful start to your career can be taxing on your mental health, while you're simultaneously beating up your body month after month in the gym. That's the case for UFC light heavyweight Karl Roberson.
Earning a UFC contract on Dana White's Contender Series with a 15-second KO finish against Ryan Spann, and defeating four of his first six UFC opponents, Roberson's career was on the rise, and a number by his name seemed imminent.
But in June 2020, Roberson fell short in his bout against Marvin Vettori, suffering a first-round submission defeat to the current No. 2-ranked middleweight contender. Losing his following two bouts against Brendan Allen and Khalil Rountree Jr., Roberson needed to reassess his preparation to figure out what was going wrong.
Rather than placing blame on his coaches or teammates, Roberson looked inward, realizing that he hadn't been in the best mental state to optimally train and perform on fight night.
"Mentally, I have a lot of stuff going on outside of the fighting game that I think I had to settle, and then within myself that I had to settle," Roberson said. "I think me moving camps, moving around a lot and expanding my view on things helped a lot."
Having a support group around you that can identify these problems is critical in your personal growth, and that's what Roberson's friends did. Rather than being yes-men, only offering advice that they though he'd want to hear, his friends helped determine what they thought was the root cause of Roberson's recent skid in the octagon.
"My friends helped me realize (that I was in my own way)," Roberson said. "People who actually know me … they can tell (I've been off the last couple of years). Especially in the position that I'm in, like, you're the athlete and sometimes it's hard for people to talk to you because they feel like you may not take it the right way, but when you have friends or family like that that are like, 'OK, you need to change something, you need to do something,' they helped me along the way."
Once getting over the hurdle of identifying what was adding so much mental stress to his everyday life, he started turning a corner. Hitting the problem head-on rather than avoiding it gave Roberson a whole new sense of relief heading into his latest training camp.
"So much relief," Roberson said. "There's pressure off your back, stress off your mind. In this lifestyle, stress is all the time, so anytime you can take a little bit off, make it a little bit easier, it's a blessing."
"F-ck it; that's basically my (new) mentality," Roberson said. "That's how I grew up. I'm here, this is what I asked for. Take a deep breath, you got 15 minutes, suck it up."
Heading into his second fight back at light heavyweight, avoiding the extra 20-pound weight cut has voided lot of the last-minute stress that Roberson was experiencing the last couple weeks before his fights.
"That helps my mental strength a lot," Roberson said. "Now I'm not focused on having to run 15, 20 miles a week to get this weight off and then it still not come off and then be stressed about that."
"I can go in the gym, take a deep breath, actually break down what I need to do to my opponent and work on that specifically."
Spending more time on studying his opponents has given Roberson more time to reflect on the lessons he learned from his dad and the game of chess. Viewing a fight as a life-or-death chess match, Roberson examines his opponents' tendencies to find the little cues that he can adjust to on the fly and exploit during the fight.
"[Fighting] is one of the most complex but most simple things where you can easily mess up somebody's intentions by moving certain things and I love that," Roberson said.
For someone who has battled through mental and physical pain so recently in his career, heading into his bout against Kennedy Nzechukwu (9-3 MMA, 3-3 UFC) at UFC on ESPN 39, Roberson (9-5 MMA, 4-5 UFC) wouldn't change the position he's in for the world.
"This is amazing, I live a dream life," Roberson said. "I'm a gladiator, what can you say bad about it. I get to punch people in the face for a living and get paid for it, and travel around the world so, I love it."
Nzechukwu was the perfect opponent for Roberson, who turned his outlook on fight week entirely around. Anticipating his opponent to bring the fight to him, Roberson is ready to bring out his best performance to date.
"Kennedy is going to try to fight," Roberson said. "That's his mentality. He might not start off fast but he's always going to be there. I love that about fighting; I know he's going to be there so he's going to pull the best out of me and I'll pull the best out of him. It's just how much is he willing to bleed."
Although a finish, more specifically a knockout, is on his mind, getting the win by any means necessary is the first step to get his career back on track.
"To be proud (of myself), just get a win," Roberson said regarding the outcome of his upcoming bout. "To get back in the win column and get validation for my team, not for me but more for my team for the work that they put into me and the faith that they have in me."
This story first published at UFC.com.